Twenty-five years ago today, The Cure released the greatest album of the last quarter century.
Surely, South Park’s Kyle Broflovski, who told hiding-in-the-shadows frontman Robert Smith that “Disintegration is the best album ever” in an episode where the gothed-out hero defeats a Godzilla-like Barbra Streisand (is there any other?) would find this an understatement.
Haunting, dark, ethereal, Disintegration paradoxically plays the opposite to all that in spots over its unforgettable 72 minutes. The opening notes of first track “Plainsong,” for instance, hopefully suggest some sonic brave new world. Disintegration’s success, along with REM’s Green and Out of Time, surely ushered in a brave new sound for a staid FM band.
The album marked the moment when alternative music made the jump to the mainstream. The Cure headlined gigs at Giants and Dodger Stadiums. They scored a No. 2 hit with “Lovesong” on the Billboard Hot 100. Their songs became staples of MTV’s 120 Minutes, a midnight Sunday broadcast created to highlight such music when normal people slept, and of quasi “college” radio stations such as Baltimore-Washington’s WHFS and Boston’s WFNX that boomed then before busting during the last decade. The world moved left of the dial, and left of the dial moved center stage.
As much as the Village People’s look exuded the fun of their music, Robert Smith’s unwieldy night-black locks, pasty white skin, and Raccoon eye-lined eyes embodied The Cure’s moody music. As Q magazine later asked on a cover featuring a basketcase Robert Smith, “How did this get to be a superstar?”
The album that made a black hole a superstar arrived at success through a similarly strange process. The songs lend themselves to neither hum-alongs nor busker six-string street-corner tributes. The layered instrumentation hides subtle sounds for future listens. Smith whispers and mumbles on “Lullaby.” He shouts on “Fascination Street.” He steps on his own vocal in echoed overdubs on “Plainsong.” His words convey a clear emotion even when indecipherable.
One mark of a great album is that the listener, even after hundreds of plays, can’t name the songs. On Disintegration, like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the tracks seamlessly morph into one long cut. The integration of them all into a 71:47 song marks a strength of Disintegration. In essence, the album is the song.
Hallucinatory drugs, and the very real prospect of his pending thirtieth birthday, influenced Smith. Artists, he reasoned, spend their creative force by thirty. Keats, Marlowe, and Shelley weren’t around at thirty to prove otherwise. And no Beatle, after all, had reached that milestone until the Beatles’ millstones had stopped. Disintegration sprang from a manic effort to create before age sapped the artistic juices at that arbitrarily arrived at number.
For a man racing against Father Time, Smith paradoxically tests the clock keeper’s patience all over the album. The emerging technology of the compact disc, as the long play had done before it, awarded artists a broader canvas on which to paint. “Pictures of You,” used by Hewlett Packard to sell digital photography a decade or so ago, waits 1:52 for the vocal. Nearly a minute of nearly-dead air prefaces the title track, making its arrival all the more arresting. This curtain call, encompassing the last three tracks, violates the recording-industry rule of saving the best for first. Six tracks time in at more than six minutes. Disintegration isn’t exactly the template for a multiplatinum record.
A quarter century on it plays as timeless rather than time capsule because it stands out from its contemporaries rather than fits in with them. Robert Smith, after his thirtieth birthday, tried several times to recreate the creativity. But original, like youth, doesn’t lend itself to late-in-life do-overs.